Many people have a special place in their heart for the sixth planet from the Sun. Its elegant beauty has captured our imaginations ever since Galileo first looked at it through a telescope in the 1600s. This intrigue, as well as our innate curiosity, has lead us to study Saturn and uncover its mysterious. Now, some new data from the Cassini spacecraft suggests that Saturn’s intricate ring system and its dazzling moons are likely more than four-billion years old, meaning that both formed around the same time.
If true, this means that the Saturnian system is a goldmine for information about the formation of our solar system. Since the planet’s rings and moons formed out of the same planetary nebula as the rest of the solar system, these objects work as a time capsule...preserving information about our solar system’s early history. Gianrico Filacchione, one of the scientists involved with Cassini, states that, “Studying the Saturnian system helps us understand the chemical and physical evolution of our entire solar system. We know now that understanding this evolution requires not just studying a single moon or ring, but piecing together the relationships intertwining these bodies.”
This data was provided by Cassini’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer – VIMS for short. In this case, the spectrometer device was used to map the distribution of water-ice in the Saturnian system. Analyzing the concentrations of water-ice provides us with insight to the evolution of the objects in orbit around the ringed planet. Much to the surprise of researchers, VIMS showed a large amount of water-ice, far too much to have been delivered my comet’s or other more modern processes.
All of this provides some reasonable evidence that Saturn, its moons, and the ring system, all formed around the same time as one another back in the very early days of our solar system.